Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Myra Melford’s Village Vanguard Debut: A Clinic in Good Ideas and Good Times

It’s hard to believe that last night marked pianist Myra Melford‘s debut as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard. She’s won so many awards and fellowships and such that it was easy to assume that she’d already done that…until a persuasive publicist prompted a serious twist-my-arm moment. On a raw, nippy, pleasantly mostly tourist-free night, with probably as much jazz talent there watching as there was onstage, this show was a no-brainer. Beyond pure unleashed fun, the early set last night made a case for how the music Tonic was booking fifteen years ago has become…well…the vanguard.

Melford and her group Snowy Egret delivered pretty much everything you could possibly want from an improvising ensemble. There were all manner of pairings, and duels, and conversations between instruments. Acoustic bassist Satoshi Takeishi’s devious leaps and bounds against drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s whispery poltergeist cymbals; guitarist Liberty Ellman’s good purist postbop cop vs. Melford’s deadpan minimalist recidivist; and cornetist Ron Miles’ tug-of-war with the piano, employing all sorts of elephantine extended technique versus Melford’s resolutely glistening undercurrent, were just a few examples.

It’s one thing to listen to the group’s album while multitasking. Immersed in those songs live, Melford’s multifaceted erudition was stunning. For one, the Afro-Cuban influence is everywhere, particularly in the rhythm, if frequently implied.. Sorey and Takeishi would typically build to a rumbling, floating swing as the songs’ long crescendos rose to the point where Melford and her merry band would take things thisclose to haywire but hanging back from complete pandemonium, then typically following a graceful downward arc, typically punctuated by a friendly bit of jousting or repartee between soloists.

Many of Melford’s compositions have an ornate, multi-segmented architecture, and this group is a propulsive vehicle for that. The most stunning moment of the set was a plaintively rippling, minor-key neoromantic piano theme over a stygian swirl about midway through the third number, The Virgin of Guadalupe, one of a handful of tunes from the group’s 2015 album. Other moments gave Melford a chance to air our her signature blend of vivid lyricism, knottily looping phrases and cleverly deconstructed swing And later, for about twenty seconds, she finally took the night’s single downward spiral through bluesy cocktail jazz – the kind that Dave Brubeck insisted that every pianist would eventually devolve to – as if to say, “I can do this in my sleep, bu I don’t, and that’s why we’re all here.”

Melford and Snowy Egret are back at the Vanguard with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 tonight and through March 6. Cover is $30.

March 2, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Piano Luminary Myra Melford Returns to Her Old LES Stomping Ground

Is it fair to call pianist Myra Melford a cult artist? Her music is so full of life, and tunes, and ideas and color that spans the emotional spectrum. In the NYC downtown jazz scene, she’s iconic, a status she earned in the 90s before she hightailed it for a UC/Berkeley professorship. She’s got a weeklong stand at the Stone starting this Tuesday, March 24 with sets at 8 and 10 PM and continuing through the 29th; cover is $15. There are too many enticing sets to list here: the 8 PM duo shows with whirlwind drummer Allison Miller on the 24th and then with clarinetist Ben Goldberg on the 25th ought to be especially good for completely different reasons. There’s also a reunion of her playful Be Bread sextet on the 26th at 10 and a quintet show with trumpet luminary Dave Douglas the following night, also at 10 – and that’s just for starters.

Melford’s latest album, due out on the 24th, is Snowy Egret with the band of the same name: Ron Miles on cornet, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. For a taste of the album – since it’s not out yet – give a listen to the final cut, The Strawberry, which hints that it’s going to be a boogie-woogie number before Melford takes it to Havana – and Sorey’s drumming is funny beyond words in places. Ellman’s biting circularities kickstart a series of divergences before Melford pulls everybody back on the rails.

As for the rest? There’s humor and irony, and a frequently dancing pulse. A handful of numbers seem to allude to the first age of imperialism in the Americas and the centuries of havoc in its wake. The first track, Language, pulses along as shuffling variations on a fanfare riff bookending a typically soulful, clear-as-the-Denver-sky Miles solo. An expansively spiky, spare Ellman solo opens Night of Sorrow, the band plaintively filling in around Melford’s spaciously elegaic, bluesy motives. Promised Land delivers some wry shout-and-response and divergent tangents within its syncopated staccato bounce.

Ching Ching For Love of Fruit – a slot machine reference, it seems – moves from a mournful muted trumpet/melodica duet between Miles and Melford to an unexpectedly carnivalesque theme, Takeishi mimicking a tuba and Sorey rattling his hardware. Likewise, The Kitchen opens with picturesque pots-and-pans drollery from Sorey, Miles and Ellman having lots of fun spinning plates and such before Takeishi makes it funky, then Melford takes it on a clenched-teeth, uh-oh trajectory.

Takeishi’s growling attack and Ellman’s fluttery unease pair with Melford’s lingering foreshadowing and Miles’ resonance throughout Times of Sleep and Fate, a tone poem of sorts that builds to a brooding, AACM-inflected majesty. Little Pockets – Everybody Pays Taxes sees the band taking some aptly squirrelly cinematics in a considerably more ominous, insistent direction: whatever you do, don’t answer the door!

First Protest works a rhythmically dizzying marionette theme, Sorey and Ellman leading the charge along a twisted second line parade route. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the album’s most expansive and moodiest track, pairs Miles’ funereal lines with Melford’s understatedly plaintive neoromantic precision, building toward a bitter bolero. Of all the cuts here, it comes closest to being the definitive one, spacious and pensive and quietly packing a wallop.

March 23, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alex Cline and Large Ensemble Reinvent an Avant-Garde Favorite

Drummer Alex Cline‘s recent release of his 2011 large-ensemble concert reworking of Roscoe Mitchell’s 1969 cult classic improvisational suite For People in Sorrow begs the question, why bother? Maybe because the original left such a mark on Cline. For the concert, he assembled an all-star, mostly West Coast group: Oliver Lake on reeds, Vinny Golia on woodwinds, Dan Clucas on cornet and flute, Jeff Gauthier on violin, Maggie Parkins on cello, Zeena Parkins on harp, Myra Melford on piano and harmonium, G.E. Stinson on electric guitar, Mark Dresser on bass, Dwight Trible and Sister Dang Nghiem on vocals. This crew does it less as a theme and variations than a long, dynamically and sometimes radically shifting tone poem. Those expecting a close approximation of the original won’t find that here, although the ensemble’s commitment and attention to the overall mood is very similar. Much of the piece is up at youtube.

There’s a lot of pairing, conversations and outright duels here: bass and percussion,  piano and cornet, vocals and gongs, guitar and bongos, sax and bass drum and a whole lot more, Cline perhaps by necessity as bandleader being up to his elbows in most of the sparring. High/low contrasts maintain a sense of tension, agitated flutes or harp against nebulous, Braxton-esque washes of sound. Cline engages with the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from the whisperiest of temple bell tones, to Hendrixian guitar wails and bunker-buster gong hits. Vocals, other than Nghiem’s – who sings religious invocations in Vietnamese – are mostly wordless but no less vivid.

Fullscale solos here, other than a trio of absolutely frantic ones from Lake, are few and far between. Brief spotlights on harp, cello and harmonium are slashingly effective, and arguably the high points of the performance. The long, all-enveloping series of crescendos at the end prefigure Wadada Leo Smith‘s more rambunctious orchestral works.The hippie-dippie poem that serves as the intro – added for this performance – adds nothing. The cd (out from Cryptogramophone) also comes with a dvd of the concert whose sound quality impressively matches that of the cd.  What does it mean, that this turbulent Vietnam War-era reflection still resonates as strongly as it does? Is it testament to the universality of Mitchell’s vision, and this group’s sense of it…or that people are just as barbaric, yet just as much in need of a respite from that barbarity, as they’ve always been?

December 7, 2013 Posted by | avant garde music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Counterintuitive Fun with Sexmob, Allison Miller and Fukushi Tainaka

What’s the likelihood of seeing two of the most consistently interesting, individualistic drummers in jazz on a doublebill at a soon-to-be-closed black box bar in Tribeca? It happened Wednesday night at the 92YTribeca at the next-to-last gig there booked by Josh Jackson of WBGO’s The Checkout, Kenny Wollesen propelling Sexmob through a deep, dynamically charged series of reinvented Nino Rota themes from Fellini films, followed by Allison Miller’s high-octane but equally eclectic quartet, Boom Tic Boom. Both drummers could not be more alike yet more dissimilar: mighty swingers with an ever-present sense of humor and a flair for the counterintuitive. Wollesen epitomizes downtown noir cool, slinking through brooding nocturnal interludes before exploding in cascades of raw, aching noise, then switching in a split second to deadpan Bad Brains-style 2/4 hardcore as bandleader Steven Bernstein blew haunted elephantine microtones on his slide trumpet. Miller’s steely focus through an endless series of OMG-we’re-going-off-the-cliff-NOW moments matched a jaw-dropping, athletic precision to her quick intellect, constantly on the prowl for where she could take the music next. Although she is generous in putting her bandmates – pianist Myra Melford, bassist Todd Sickafoose and cornetist Kirk Knuffke – in the spotlight, she likes being centerstage. Wollesen seems not to care whether anyone other than the rest of the band is paying attention to him, even though he knows everyone is.

Sexmob’s new album Cinema Circus & Spaghetti (Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota) is just out and one of the year’s best; this was an opportunity for them to air out mini-suites from individual films, beginning with a brooding sonata of sorts comprised of themes from Amarcord, going deep into the underlying angst in Juliet of the Spirits and then alternately bleakly atmospheric and furiously agitated passages from La Strada. Bassist Tony Scherr got the more lively, dancing parts, one of them completely solo: by rubatoing them, he stripped off any kitsch factor without losing the hooks. After all, what is noir without hooks to come back and haunt you?

Saxophonist Briggan Krauss began on alto, joining in cagy harmonies with Bernstein, then moving to baritone for some of the set’s darkest moments before switching back again. Bernstein took his time, choosing his spots, contrasting long, mournful sostenuto passages with animated hardbop flurries, often utilizing an echo effect and misty microtones from a second mic that did double duty as a mute, as he enveloped it with the bell of his horn.

Miller’s set featured similar dynamic contrasts, alternating catchy, syncopated funk vamps with spacious, vividly moody neoromantic ballads fueled by Melford’s darkly mjaestic, resonant, often gospel-tinged lines. On the absolutely gorgeous Waiting, Sickafoose followed Melford’s hypnotic lyricism with a long, incisive, stalking solo; Knuffke’s fluttering chromo-bop on the equally hypnotic, funky opening number set the stage for many of the highlights to come.  At one point Miller came out of blistering, pummeling riffage on the toms with a lickety-split, pinpoint-precise circular motif on the cymbals that took the suspense to redline as the band pummeled along with her: was she going to be able to maintain this perfect, Bach-like meticulousness with the storm raging all around? As it turned out, yes.

Other standout numbers included the funky, New Orleans flavored The Itch; a surrealistically moody vocal number sung with an affecting longing by a guest soprano, musing about memories of a childhood home bulldozed for stripmalls and pre-packaged dreams. and the straight-up funk tune Big and Lovely (dedicated to Miller’s pal Toshi Reagon) which gave Melford a platform for some no-nonsense, hard-hitting blues. The set ended counterintuitively with an elegaic tone poem of sorts that had Knuffke channeling what Bernstein had been doing earlier – within seconds, Bernstein, who had been hanging at the merch table, went up front and watched intently.

What’s the likelihood of both of these acts having excellent new albums, both available on delicious vinyl along with the usual digital formats, out from Royal Potato Family? Whatever the case, it’s true. And the concert was simulcast on WBGO and it’s available for streaming here.

And speaking of drummers, it wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without a mention of Fukushi Tainaka (Lou Donaldson’s longtime man behind the kit) leading his own playful trio at Cleopatra’s Needle the following night. Tainaka, bassist Hide Tanaka and pianist Miki Yamanaka engaged each other in a constant exchange of wry jousts and push-and-pull that breathed new life into tired old standards like All the Things You Are and Girl from Ipanema. They teased the audience as they entertained themselves with false starts for solos, Tainaka deviously hinting and foreshadowing tempo shifts, the bass adding an unexpected somberness late in the set, Yamanaka backing away from lyrical to minimalistic as the bass and drums dove and bobbed through the space she’d elbowed out for them.

May 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Satoko Fujii-Myra Melford – Under the Water

One of the most exciting piano albums of recent years, this Myra Melford/Satoko Fujii collaboration is an intense, often ferociously haunting yet sometimes extremely funny album. Fujii’s Libra Records released a limited-edition run of 500 copies, each with a one-of-a-kind hand-printed sleeve by klezmer accordionist Sachie Fujisawa. Of these, somebody saw fit to send one to l’il ole Lucid Culture [aside: (slap) Get your fingers off that thing! It’s a collector’s item! No, you’re not taking it home, you can listen to it right here]. A series of duo piano improvisations plus one solo piece by each performer, it’s a clinic in good listening (for anyone who plays improvised music, this is a must-own – memo to Libra: PRINT MORE!) and interplay, worth checking to see if it’s sold out yet or if there are (hopefully) more on the way. Each performer’s individual voice asserts itself here, Melford the slightly more traditionalist, Fujii (a Paul Bley acolyte) somewhat further outside. Both pianists use the entirety of the piano, rapping out percussion on the case and manipulating the inside strings for effects ranging from something approximating an autoharp, to a singing saw.

The first improvisation builds with sparse, staccato phrases from inside the piano, like a muted acoustic guitar. The second, The Migration of Fish is a high-energy, conversational feast of echo, permutation and call-and-response. Of the two solo pieces, Fujii’s Trace a River vividly evokes swirling currents, schools of fish and a bracingly cool fluidity. Melford’s Be Melting Snow, by contrast, is a murky, modal tar-pit boogie of sorts, practically gleeful in its unrelenting darkness. Utsubo (Japanese for moray eel) closes the cd on an exhilarating note. Fujii just wants to lurk in her lair and wait for prey, but Melford wants to play! And finally she cajoles Fujii out of her fugue (literally), and then they play tag, and YOU’RE IT! But Fujii isn’t done with lurking. She goes back between the rocks, way down with a pitch-black blast of sound, working both the keys and the inside of the piano and at the bottom of the abyss Melford adds the most perfect little handful of upper-register single-key accents, only accentuating the savagery of the ending. Wow!

May 21, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment